Prisons have been hotbeds of coronavirus infection across the country since early in the year. A prominent outbreak in June involving over 2,200 inmates at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County resulted 28 deaths, as well as the death of one prison guard. There have now been over 3,300 new cases in California prisons in the last 14 days, and a new report suggests that mask-wearing and other safety protocols have been lax or non-existent at some prisons during the pandemic.
There are clear signs of a new surge among California's inmate population, with about one-third of recent infections occurring at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF) in Corcoran, in Kings County. 1,008 of the 3,310 new cases in the past two weeks have been at the SATF, with another 606 at High Desert State Prison in Lassen County, and 410 at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Fresno County. Over 1,200 more new cases have been confirmed at a half dozen other prisons around the state in recent weeks, and San Quentin is even continuing to see new cases, with five active cases currently in custody — and another 57 cases listed as active, but released from custody.
As KTVU reports, the apparent surge at correctional institutions is arriving not long after a report by California's Office of the Inspector General which puts the blame for prison outbreaks on a number of factors, including inconsistent screening of inmates, and improper or inconsistent public-health protocols. The first part of the report, regarding screening practices was released in August, and the second part was released in October.
The report found that while the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) distributed face masks and encouraged social distancing protocols as the pandemic began, little training and lax enforcement of new rules quickly led to outbreaks — including the one at San Quentin, which was seeded by an earlier one at the California Institution for Men in Chino. Accounts from multiple inmates talked about how distancing wasn't possible in San Quentin's antiquated cellblocks which lack doors on the cells — and the report discusses how staff failed to properly wear facial coverings at 23 out of 35 state prisons.
Also, the report found that prisons had broken thermometers and insufficient screening procedures for symptomatic inmates.
There have been over 21,000 cumulative cases of COVID-19 at California prisons, with over 3,800 active cases among inmates — and another 1,430 among staff.
"It’s sad but it’s failed leadership,” said Assemblymember Jim Cooper, speaking to KTVU. "Some of this stuff I’m hearing is laughable. The thermometer stuff is mind-numbing."
CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison blames initial directions from the state that were "unclear," saying that "It was almost a recommendation versus being mandatory."
But as outbreaks have roiled correctional institutions nationwide, seeding ever more infections in the often small, rural communities where prisons are built, officials say it's unconscionable that any lax enforcement or issues with mask-wearing should still be happening.
"I’m still trying to understand how in an environment where people really don’t have a lot of choices, how this was somehow people were given a choice,” says Assemblymember Philip Ting, speaking to KTVU. "Especially when you have broad authority to tell them you better wear a mask or else."
Photo: Matthew Ansley